Senate debates

Tuesday, 6 October 2020


Royal Commissions Amendment (Confidentiality Protections) Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:17 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The purpose of this bill is to extend confidentiality protections that exist for witnesses and their evidence beyond the life of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Exploitation and Neglect of People with Disability. Currently, the Royal Commission can only guarantee the confidentiality of witnesses while it is sitting making this a matter of urgency, both for the ability of the Royal Commission to do its work and for the safety of witnesses.

The Australian Greens, along with the disability community, have been calling for a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Exploitation and Neglect of Disabled People for more than a decade and we strongly support the right of disabled people to choose to give their evidence in confidence, and be supported to do so. At this moment I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of my colleague, Senator Rachel Siewert, whose leadership of the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Violence, Abuse and Neglect against people with a disability was critical to giving momentum to the establishment of our Royal Commission.

But right now, disabled people are being advised by advocacy organisations, legal representatives and the Royal Commission's own legal advisors that they should withhold their evidence until greater protections exist in the law. This is having a very real chilling effect on the ability of the Royal Commission to do its job.

The Morrison Government has known about the urgent need for these protections since November 2019 when the Chair Ronald Sackville AO QC first noted it in his closing address to the Townsville public hearing on education.

The Commission then formally wrote to the Attorney General in February of this year asking for the Government to progress these legislative changes, as did I on behalf of the Australian Greens along with many other members of the disability community.

On page 37 of the Royal Commission's second Progress Report, which was released in early August, the Chair again makes it clear that the limitations of confidentiality provisions within the Royal Commissions Act are impeding on people's willingness to speak with the Commission and affecting the scope of the Commission's work.

Even without these requests, it should have been clear to this Government that the nature of this Royal Commission would require special considerations and protections, as previous inquiries had done, and that without them there would be significant limitations on both the findings and recommendations in the final report.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which ran from January 2013 to December 2017, included such protections for witnesses who gave confidential evidence outside of private hearings beyond the life of the Royal Commission. This amendment will, in effect, replicate section 60N of the Royal Commissions Act which was created specifically for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

For more than a year the Morrison Government has known that current laws aren't strong enough to protect the privacy of witnesses to the Disability Royal Commission, yet they've done nothing about it. That is why the Australian Greens are introducing these amendments to the Senate to ensure that our Royal Commission is fully equipped to do its work and that disabled people and their families feel safe to tell their stories.

So many people in our community have lost all faith in the system because of the violence, abuse, exploitation or neglect they, or their family, have suffered.

Now, as public hearings start again to hear about people's experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's more important than ever that our Royal Commission can hear evidence from as many people as possible.

I commend this bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.